TLDR: I’m a first-time author writing a picture book, and I’m taking readers along on the journey.
Last week I started my vomit draft.
What is a vomit draft, you may wonder?
I thought it referred to what forms in your throat when you finally start writing your book after two months of phrasing foreplay.
But no – a vomit draft is actually the most basic of first drafts. It’s where you throw all your ideas onto the page to generate a general structure of the book and outline the information you want to include. (The Writer had a great feature explaining the concept more in-depth in our January issue.)
I wrote my vomit draft in 84 minutes.
It’s crude. It’s spare. It’s not meant for anyone else’s consumption.
It’s also, not incidentally, 500 words over my desired word count.
I’m trying not to sweat any of this, which goes against every synapse firing through my Type A brain.
I’m an editor first, and that has always made me an extremely precise writer. While I may change a few words here and there, most of my articles keep the same format, structure, lede, and conclusion throughout the editing process. I am a linear thinker, and I prefer to know where I’m going.
I am not the kind of person who just “types,” as I’ve seen suggested in so many writing prompts. “Type and don’t worry about spelling or grammar or sentence structure!”
Uh, no. Sorry, but even my journal entries written decades ago in the throes of 15-year-old angst would fly through spellcheck unscathed. I get panicky at the idea that I have ever once written “their” when it should be “there.”
Yet I quickly realized this precision wasn’t going to work for book writing. Why is that? Because before I spewed out the vomit draft, I spent two weeks staring at a blank page.
Oh, it wasn’t blank all the time. I typed and then erased a lot of words (all of them spelled correctly) as I tried to find the right entry point into my book.
I knew the scene I was trying to convey. But I couldn’t quite find the right approach. And so, when yet another writing session netted a perfectly white page, I knew it was time to change tactics.
I remembered the article I’d edited for The Writer when #RutBusterBook was a mere hashlet in my mind. It talked about “vomiting” your entire story onto the page, then chiseling it out from there.
It would take a lot of chiseling, the story warned. Like, Michelangelo levels of chisel-bearing.
Well, I told myself, you’re an editor. You can do that.
I’d spent so much time attempting the opening as a writer, I’d neglected to think about it as an editor. That comes more easily to me. Editors know things can be improved later. They don’t need to be just right to start.
Once I stopped trying to pen the perfect opener to the book, I jotted down some passages for the middle that, while far from polished, convey the general theme of what I want to write. I sat down one night while my daughter was at basketball practice and hurled words onto the page. I knew I had exactly 84 minutes before carpool duty, which was an excellent motivator to do it Vin Diesel style – fast, furious, and with a bit of a scowl. It was actually kinda magical.
My heroine made her first appearance on the page; my description of her ran way too long, but I developed a picture of her in my head that I lacked before. I decided to set the book as a flashback instead of in real time. I shifted an image I had imagined for the final page of my book to midway through the manuscript.
With six minutes left before basketball pickup, I wrote a line so perfectly attuned to my heroine’s point of view, I almost teared up. The next morning, I erased it – it sounded so amazing because, I realized, someone else wrote it first. I later confirmed it appeared in a book I read my children over and over when they were little. Nothing like a little unintentional plagiarism to wrap up a writing session.
As I approached the end of my draft, I recognized I was missing a key part of the book – a character children could relate to who would bring them into the story.
My copious research on children’s books (I have now read just about every article on Google about writing a picture book and getting it published) suggests this is a fatal flaw of many potentially great stories. Kids do not respond to stories focused on adults. Adults are too authoritative and serious. The best children’s books show the world through the eyes of characters who are either kids or animals (or both – think Blueberries for Sal or Charlotte’s Web).
Without the vomit draft, I’d still be staring at a blank page and fretting about that opening image.
Changing your methods isn’t always easy, but it can be effective.
It’s very possible nothing in this first draft will make it to the printed page, if I am lucky enough to find a publisher. Yet I see now why it’s a vital part of the process. Without the vomit draft, I’d still be staring at a blank page and fretting about that opening image. Instead, I have the bones of a story, even if the frame’s a little fleshy.
Now excuse me while I go sharpen my chisel. This next phase could take a while.
So, where am I on my book today? I have:
- Done a ton of research on the obscure president who’s the secondary main character of my book.
- Settled on a picture book format. (I’d been going back and forth between picture and middle grade, but after discussing my ideas with my middle-grade daughter, I decided my theme would be easier to convey with visual aids. I also didn’t want to pursue the secondary plots you need to develop for a more sophisticated audience.)
- Read several books on writing for kids, including Lisa Rojany Buccieri and Peter Economy’s Writing Children’s Books for Dummies, Luke Wallin’s The Everything Guide to Writing Children’s Books, and Katie Davis’ How to Write a Children’s Book (this was free for Kindle for a few days, score!).
- Written a “vomit draft” of the book that’s way too long but has all the details I think are important.
- Started a with character attributes and imagery for different pages.